At my mother's funeral on Monday, a number of people spoke - including her dear friend, Gael Collins, who was the celebrant, and three of her old friends Margaret Raby, Karlene Boag and Zelma Brown. My sister and nephew both gave eulogies, and I did as well. This is mine, followed by a picture of my grandmother (Jane), me and my mother at my cousin Etau's wedding, long ago.
One of my friends once described Mamma as a “force of nature,” and that’s the most apt description of her, I think. She was mercurial, restless, vital; curious about the world and everything going on in it; passionate and determined; indomitable. She was an adventurer and a traveller. She had a great sense of fun and mischief. She loved singing, especially the hymns she’d learned as a child, and she loved politics, news shows and talk radio. Although our mother had no particular interest in sport, she could have won an Olympic medal in talking. When we were children, we knew to scatter when we heard the phrase “Madame Toastmistress, fellow members and guests,” because it meant my mother was practicing a speech for ITC, and we might be forced to listen to it several dozen times.
My mother liked to say that she loved us all equally but we knew that Lynn-Elisabeth was her number 1. Stephen was her little pet. I was Paula Jane, Second-hand Rose, Fan-an-toush. When she called for us, the hierarchy was strict. My sister got her whole name, but I was usually Lynn-a-Paula. Then there was Lynn-a-Paula-Stephen. Then Lynn-a-Paula-Stephen-Rusty, for the dog. My father, of course, was Lynn-a-Paula-Stephen-Rusty-Kiri.
Mamma made many things possible for us because she saw no limits to what we could achieve. She encouraged us to read and to work hard and to go places. She’s always been ferociously proud of us. At one of my first readings for my first novel, when everyone clapped at the end I spotted my mother, clapping like this – with her hands above her head – smiling around at the other people in the audience. When she was too frail to attend the NZ Post Book Awards with the rest of the family two years ago, she said to me: “Even if you don’t win, we’ll all know you were really the best.” She was delighted with everything her grandchildren did – their travels, their academic achievements, Matthew’s marriage to Martha. She tried to get them interested in religion – which didn’t take, but when Rebecca was very small, my mother managed to get her obsessed with ironing, shoes and diamonds. I think Rebecca’s enthusiasm for ironing has waned, but she retains my mother’s passion for shoes and other accessories.
My parents, as you all know, were very different in many ways. My mother only drank tea, while my father only drinks coffee. She only drank red wine, and he only drinks white. They both loved to read, but never read the same kind of books. They both loved to laugh, but hardly ever at the same things. My brother told me that one of the last complete sentences my mother managed to get out was: “Kiri has no sense of humour!” What they DID love to do together was dance: they were very conceited about their dancing. They loved going to the theatre and to movies, something all three of us love as well. In fact, many of my special times with Mamma when I was young involved watching old movies with her on TV. My parents loved travelling; and they loved their grandchildren. She did know, of course, that my father cared for her throughout her illness with utter devotion.
This week my cousin Jane emailed to say that when she was small, she thought that Mamma was related to the Queen. I wasn’t surprised to hear this, because my mother was defiantly British – never a New Zealander, despite living here for fifty years – as well as being imperious and a royalist. Every year she checked to make sure I’d watched the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day, and was outraged to hear it wasn’t broadcast in the US. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that my mother was always deferential to the royal family. When I was a teenager she wouldn’t let me get my ears pierced, because she thought it was “common.” I pointed out that the Queen had pierced ears. Her reply? “Then the Queen is common.”
She had many stories of growing up in South Shields, particularly the war years when the beach was mined and she spent many nights in air raid shelters while the bombs fell. Mamma said that between Winston Churchill and her mother, she had no doubt that they’d make it through. Two of the most important people to her were part of that life in South Shields: her younger brother, our late uncle Albert, and her niece Brenda, who was more like a sister to her in many ways.
When Tom and I got married in 2000, in New Orleans, my mother announced that she didn’t think much of the poem we’d asked my brother to read at the wedding and thought we should have a Bible verse instead. She said to me, “I have Corinthians here in my handbag if you need it.” She was so persistent about it that I banned her from the run-through. But of course, when we were out in the courtyard where the ceremony was to take place, rehearsing, I spotted my mother and her accomplice, Brenda, lurking in the distance. When she realized she’d been spotted, my mother ducked behind a bush to hide. She would never admit to being there at all.
I was home in May, and saw my mother alive for the last time. We both knew it was the last time. She made sure I’d written my name on Post-It notes and stuck them inside those of her Toby Jugs that I wanted. I also promised her I wouldn’t let my brother sell them all at Cash Converters, as he’d long been threatening to do. When I left to go to the airport, I said goodbye to her, and told her to be nice to my father and brother, because they were doing so much to look after her. She said: Rabbits to you! And I was happy that this was the last thing she said to me in person, because it was silly, and funny, and spirited, and contrary, just like her.
Mamma liked to say that our birthdays were really HER special day as well, and I always told her that they really weren’t – but clearly this is an argument I’ve lost. We’re holding her funeral on my birthday. The day I first saw her face is the day I’ll see it for the last time. Luckily we didn’t put her in a home, because she threatened to haunt us if we did that.
For years after my grandmother, Jane, died, whenever there was scandal or gossip or some big social event, my mother would say: Grandma would have loved this. And now, I think, we’ll do the same with her. Mamma would have loved this.